Is ecumenism focused on full unity of the Christian churches or unity in their diversity? This was the central question of a major discussion on ecumenism held to mark the centenary of the “Lambeth Appeal” and the subsequent Malines conversations on Christian unity. Hosted by the British and Belgian embassies to the Holy See, the conference held in Rome and on Zoom on June 11 looked at the ways in which ideas about unity have developed in recent years and how an early belief that full communion might be possible has given way to both a desire for greater, more tolerant unity and a respect for diversity. As Prof. Vimal Tirimanna, CSsR, Professor of Moral Theology, Pontifical Accademia Alfonsiana said: “Reality is diverse; God has made it that way. Such diversity of Christian faith needs to be perceived as a resource if not an enrichment rather than being seen merely as a competition”, while Dr Thomas Pott, from the monastery of Chevotogne in Belgium said: “Unity is not something static but dynamic.”

Cardinal Jozef De Kesel, the current Archbishop of Malines (Mechelen), highlighted grounds for optimism in a message to the conference, but also the need to meet challenges: “There is agreement on fundamental issues, a growing convergence to the extent that what we have in common is much greater than what divides us.

“Our western society has evolved from being a homogenous Christian one into a secular culture…this is a situation that demands unity in our testimony to the world.

But the cardinal also warned of the price of continuing division:

“Not only are we still divided but we are displaying it. Recalling the Malines conversations reminds us how urgent unity is.

“We speak here of unity in diversity. Unity calls us to discernment not only by the authorities of the Church but by the church communities themselves.”

In 1920, the sixth Lambeth Conference was held and its most important consequence was its “Appeal to all Christian people” which set out how Anglicans would move towards unity with other Christian denominations. Contacts were then made with other Christians, including Roman Catholics, with the chief impetus for ecumenical discussion being the friendship between the second Lord Halifax and the Catholic priest, Abbé Fernand Portal. Cardinal Désiré Mercier, archbishop of the Belgian primatial see of Malines, agreed to host a series of discussions – later known as the Malines Conversations – from 1921 to 1927 on whether the Anglican and Roman Catholic Churches could and should be reunited. The conversations tried to clarify where the most significant divisions between Anglicans and Roman Catholics lay – something that today seems a perfectly reasonable endeavour but at the time Cardinal Mercier and the then Archbishop of Canterbury, Randall Davidson, knew they were risking their reputations in supporting the talks.

Since the 1920s, the legacy of Malines has been considerable, including not only the Octave of Prayer for Christian Unity but also creation of the institutional dialogues, the Anglican Roman Catholic International Commission (ARCIC) in 1970 and the International Anglican-Roman Catholic Commission for Unity and Mission (IARCCUM) in 2001, many visits by Archbishops of Canterbury to Rome, the visits of Popes John Paul II and Benedict XVI to Britain, and, not least, creation of the Anglican Centre in Rome.

According to Lord Williams, the former Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams, who gave the keynote address at the conference, the Malines Conversations were among “the most remarkable and creative ecumenical episodes in the 20th century”, when those involved were 

willing to debate issues in relation to the two Churches’ own character, and broadly engage with biblical and traditional material, rather than start with existing adversarial situations. “It was a catalyst for new thinking and helped defined the style and tone of ecumenical dialogue since”, he said.  

The discussions at Malines had four key issues: the exercising of Petrine ministry (papal primacy based on Jesus given the keys of the kingdom to Peter), limits of diversity within a sacramentally unified church, the relevance of non-western thought to western debates about theology, and the nature of authority in the church. These all helped prompt discussion about the two churches’ own characters and their influence is evident in the ecclesiological revolution of Vatican II, he commented.  

There was a willingness to think about the nature and the limits of the Church in sacramental terms rather than juridical, looking at papal authority and balancing it with a synodical approach, and looking at Petrine ministry with a more nuanced eye, said Lord Williams. And for Anglicans, there was the issue of whether closer relations with Rome would mean it could determine canonical structure governing local liturgies and disciplines, and how this would influence local Anglican bishops. There was also talk as to whether unity needs a unitary ecclesial culture.

Malines today seems “unduly locked into technicalities” especially on ministerial recognition and canonical process, said Lord Williams. But it was highly significant in changing thinking, leading to Vatican II opening up biblically literate and sacramentally grounded ecclesiology.

The Malines Conversations were groundbreaking in the life of the Church, showing a readiness of theologians and churchmen to reconsider established thinking. And in that approach, they reflected the mood of the times. Dr Alana Harris, an historian from Kings College, London reminded the audience that the 1920s were an era when people embraced modernity, experimentation and change while Dr Jan de Maeyer, a professor of church history from the University of Louvain, pointed out that Cardinal Mercier was deeply disturbed by the fate of the Russian Orthodox Church at the hands of the Bolsheviks and believed that only a united Church could confront revolution.

Today, the issues that exercise those engaged in ecumenical dialogue have changed since the Malines encounters, even if those conversations laid the foundations. “There is so much money in the bank”, was how the Dr Jamie Hawkey, Canon Theologian at Westminster Abbey and Anglican Centre governor, put it.

Dr Hawkey highlighted the diversity of voices emerging in the ARCIC dialogues and the questions that must now be tackled regarding issues such as gender and ministry, while Professor Tirimanna pointed out that most of the divisive issues today are to do with morals and sexual ethics – issues which are currently being dicussed by ARCIC.

But there was a difference in tone now, as Professor Tirimanna highlighted: “Most Christians today realize that no one person or a single denomination claim to possess the truth in its entirety. The Holy Spirit leads us to the whole truth: we are on a pilgrimage”. As part of that pilgrimage, Dr Hawkey pointed out that today “our Churches need to ask: what do we give up in order for there to be greater unity?” In other words, it is not a question of assuming that another denomination should make sacrifices; one’s own church might need to make concessions in an era of receptive ecumenism.

With the creation of the International Anglican-Roman Catholic Commission for Unity and Mission (IARCCUM) in 2001, there has been growing emphasis in recent years on Anglicans and Roman Catholics working together in practical ways, rather than just focusing on dialogue and intense theological debate over what still divides the two Churches. This practical action can be seen at both the local level – with members of the two denominations working together to combat homelessness, for example, or run foodbanks – and at the very highest levels too. Pope Francis and the current Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, have been involved together in efforts to help broker peace in South Sudan.

Such practical action was warmly welcomed by Fr Agbonkhianmeghe Orobator, President of the Jesuit Conference of Major Superiors of Africa and Madagascar, who told the conference that the future of ecumenical dialogue is in day to day co-operation between Christians rather than only focusing on joint declarations by the Churches.

But Dr Thomas Pott was a little more skeptical, warning that “there is a temptation to reduce dialogue to practical matters, pushing communion into utopia”.

For many gathered at the conference, though, the greatest consequence of ecumenism so far is the way in which the Roman Catholic Church has learnt about synodality from its Anglican counterparts and how Pope Francis is encouraging greater use of synods in the Catholic Church. Synod was perceived by Pope Paul VI as a way to continue the collegial experience of the Second Vatican Council and now Pope Francis is going further, calling on Catholics to support the first ever decentralized synod. The synod on the theme of communion, participation and mission, will be launched in Rome in October, followed by every diocese around the world then being involved in consultations with the laity and proposals being submitted to bishops’ conferences. It would lead to a major gathering of bishops in Rome in 2023.  

Pope Francis’ enthusiasm for synods has been acknowledged in the ARCIC III document, Walking Together on the Way and was expressed in his comment that synodality is what “God expects of the Church in the third millennium”. Lord Williams told the Malines conference that he predicts major questions will emerge from the grassroots about the future of the Catholic Church and the role of the laity and how membership of the Church impacts on their lives. He was, he said, “deeply impressed by the attention being given to it” by those preparing for the decentralized synod.